There's no better place to get a firsthand look at how complicated salmon management can be than Oregon and California's Klamath River.
Two days after the president called attention to the complexities of salmon management in his State of the Union address this week, four environmental groups sent out a call for federal protection of yet another fragile salmon species: the Klamath River chinook.
The Klamath River is already a case of salmon management that's not just complicated. It's also tremendously controversial.
So controversial, in fact, that former Vice President Dick Cheney jumped into the fray back in 2001– and wound up getting blamed for the death of more than 70,000 salmon as a result.
Who gets the water: Fish or farmers?
One of the keys to salmon survival is a supply of clean fresh water in the rivers where adult salmon spawn and juveniles bulk up for life in the ocean. Water is also essential for farmers growing crops in the Klamath River Basin and for PacifCorp, the power company that operates hydroelectric dams on the river.
The farmers got their water, but a few months later, 77,000 coho and chinook salmon were found belly up in the river.There's another salmon species on the Klamath River that's already listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Federal requirements to ensure the protected Klamath River coho had enough water to survive created enough of a pinch for drought-afflicted farmers in 2001 that Dick Cheney called the Department of the Interior to make sure irrigation water for farmers wouldn't be withheld to protect the fish.
The farmers got their water, but a few months later, 77,000 coho and chinook salmon were found belly up in the river. Biologists concluded the irrigation diversions were at least partially responsible for the fish kill. The Klamath salmon are a major source of the West Coast commercial fisheries on the ocean; they're a longtime food source for tribes that live along the river and its tributaries.
After 10 years of water wars, a compromise
The region's water wars have been complex indeed.
But for the past five years there has been a movement to get all the major stakeholders in the region together to hash out a reasonable long-term solution to the conflicts between dams, farmers, fishermen and fish. Last year, the group arrived at two settlement agreements that promise the removal of four dams from the river, hundreds of millions of dollars in salmon habitat restoration and a steady flow of water for farmers. Together, the two agreements are known as the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreements.
Supporters of the agreements say removing the dams is the best way to revive spring chinook on the Klamath. They say the new petition to list the chinook under the Endangered Species Act will not save the spring run.
Glenn Spain, Northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said his group opted to sign Klamath settlement agreements because they do the single most important thing for fish in the Klamath River Basin – removing four dams starting in 2020.
“An ESA listing will not get you there,” Spain said. “Only the Klamath agreement can do that.”
Dissenters want more for fish and wildlife
Not all environmental groups watching out for Klamath River salmon and other wildlife agreed with the terms of the dam removal deal. They're the ones that have teamed up and filed the petition to list the Klamath River chinook as a threatened species.
Ani Kame’enui of the environmental group Oregon Wild – one of the four groups petitioning for the chinook listing – said the Klamath agreements sacrifice too many protections for fish and wildlife to help farmers and dam operators, and they’re still far from final. They’re contingent on Congress approving $500 million in funding, and the feds are still studying the impacts of dam removal. Her group was initially party to the agreements but later backed out.
“The KBRA is really complex and remains a pretty controversial document," she said. "Not everyone supporting restoration of salmon agrees with the KBRA. ... The agreement does not provide secure flows for fish. It doesn’t provide the security we feel we’ll be able to get under ESA.”
A new threat to a hard-fought agreement?
Craig Tucker, the Klamath coordinator for the Karuk Tribe, said the filing to list the spring chinook actually poses a threat to the existing agreements and could wind up punishing fishermen without much promise of bringing the spring chinook back.
"If we felt listing the fish was the best way to restore springers we would've already done it," he said. "I would point to the fact that coho are already ESA listed, and they have continued to decline."
He said the Klamath agreements did require compromise, but it was a compromise that his tribe was willing to make.
"Did we get everything we wanted? No," he said. "We want the dams removed tomorrow and all the water for the fish. The farmers would like to keep the dams and keep electricity and water for themselves, but I think we both realized that neither one of those positions were going to win out, and if we didn't find a compromise that met both of our needs we would both suffer."